WYSO

Doolittle Raiders Offer Final Toast To 71-Year-Old Mission

Nov 11, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2013 10:11 am

On April 18, 1942, in response to the Japanese attack the previous December on Pearl Harbor, 80 men in 16 B-25 bombers took off on a secret mission to bomb Japan. Led by James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, they became known as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders.

On Saturday, three of the four remaining Raiders met for what is likely to be the last time at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Waving to the crowd were former Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, of Texas, former Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, of Washington state and 92-year-old former Staff Sgt. David Thatcher of Montana. Former Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93 and a fellow Raider, could not make the trip from his home in Tennessee.

After the motorcade pulled into Memorial Park, Cole addressed the crowd: "Ladies and gentlemen, once again we meet in this memorial park to reflect on the mission more than 71 years ago. We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve."

Following a B-25 bomber flyover, the Raiders were escorted to a private room above the museum. Next to each man was a framed photograph of his younger self.

Saylor, holding court on one side of the room, says younger generations want him to talk about World War II.

"I got two commitments next week: high schools, rotary club, Kiwanis, military outfits. Lots of interest in it, so I speak quite often," Saylor says.

Across the room, Thatcher gives his thoughts on the mission. "It's really surprising that the public would remember a raid like that so many years ago [was] just a part of the war effort," he says.

But the Doolittle Raid is seen as a turning point in the war. The raid on Japan boosted the low morale of Americans and forced the Japanese to reevaluate their strategy.

Thatcher's son, Jeffrey, says his father has always been humble about the role he played. "They didn't brag about their exploits. They just felt like it was their duty, and they went and did it and just moved forward with their lives," he says.

In 1959, officials in Tucson, Ariz., presented the Raiders with a set of 80 name-engraved silver goblets. They're kept in a velvet-lined box, and after each year's toast, the goblets of those who have died are turned upside down. Four remain upright.

This time, the Raiders bring out an 1896 vintage bottle of Hennessy cognac. It was given to Jimmy Doolittle on his 60th birthday, and it has been kept unopened by the Raiders.

Cole is asked to break the wax seal, but it's not an easy task. When the 98-year-old succeeds, the final toast is offered: "Gentleman, I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much, and may they rest in peace."

More than 71 years of tragedy, bravery and inspiration have lead to this moment. And finally, the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders declare their mission is over.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On this Veteran's Day, let's take a moment to remember one of the most daring raids of World War II, and the men who took part in it.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In April 1942, in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, 80 men took off in B-25 bombers on a top-secret mission to bomb Japan. Because of the long distance, the journey would have to be one way: Hit the target, and then land in a part of China not occupied by the Japanese.

GREENE: The mission succeeded. Sixty-two men survived. Led by Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle, they became known as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. On Saturday, three of the four remaining raiders met for what they said would be the last time at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. From member station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Jerry Kenney reports.

JERRY KENNEY, BYLINE: Spectators young and old have gathered outside the museum this Saturday afternoon. The sky is a brilliant blue, but winds are strong. At 1:15, the Raiders' motorcade approaches, each man in a separate car, flanked by Liberty Riders.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KENNEY: Waving to the crowd are 98-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole from Texas, 93-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor from Washington state and from Montana, 92-year-old Sergeant David Thatcher. Fellow Raider, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite, could not make the trip from his home in Tennessee. Slowly, the motorcade pulls into Memorial Park, where Cole addresses the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE)

KENNEY: Following a B-25 bomber flyover, the Raiders were escorted to a private room above the museum, next to each man, a framed photograph of his younger self. It is time on display. On one side of the room, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor holds court. He says younger generations want him to talk about World War II.

EDWARD SAYLOR: I've got two commitments next week: high schools, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, military outfits. Lots of interest in it. So, I speak quite often.

KENNEY: And across the room, Staff Sergeant David Thatcher explains his thoughts on the mission.

DAVID THATCHER: It's really surprising that the public would remember a raid like that so many years ago, because it was just a part of the war effort.

KENNEY: But the Doolittle raid is seen as a turning point in the war. The raid on Japan itself boosted the low morale of Americans and forced the Japanese to reevaluate their strategy. Thatcher's son Jeffrey says his father has always been humble about the part he played in that.

JEFFREY THATCHER: You know, they didn't brag about their exploits. They just felt like it was their duty, and they went and did it and, you know, just moved forward with their lives.

KENNEY: In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona presented the Raiders with a set of 80 name-engraved silver goblets. They're kept in a velvet-lined box, and after each year's toast, the goblets of those who have died are turned upside down. Four remain upright. This time, the raiders bring out an 1896 vintage bottle of Hennessey cognac. It was given to Jimmy Doolittle on his 60th birthday, and has been kept unopened by the Raiders ever since. Lieutenant Colonel Cole is asked to break the wax seal, not an easy task.

: This is a tough one. It's a tough one.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEY: The 98-year-old finally succeeds, and the solemn final toast is made.

: Gentlemen, I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission, and those that have passed away since. Thank you very much, and may they rest in peace.

(APPLAUSE)

KENNEY: More than 71 years of tragedy, bravery and inspiration have led to this moment, and finally, the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders declare their mission is over. For NPR News, I'm Jerry Kenney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.